¡hola papi!

‘I’m Terrified of Dating’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

To start off, I’m straight, so I understand if you don’t reply. But I’m really hoping you will solve my dating issues.

I was ghosted by my boyfriend of over a year at a time when my life was already going down the drain. I had recently been fired, learned I had to return to my country, and lost my grandfather. After that, my heart basically decided to close up for good. 

Things picked up a bit. I moved to Europe and got a good job. But my heart is still clamped shut. I’m terrified of going on second or third dates with someone, and I haven’t done it in the past eight years. On my low days, I tell myself it’s because of a physical flaw like my teeth not being aligned. On my good days, I say, “Screw ’em if they don’t want me.”

Through it all, though, I’ve been lonely, and I don’t know what’s holding me back. Is it body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, fear of being ghosted again, or all of the above? Lately, I’ve been so hyperaware of being single that it’s getting in the way of other thoughts. The tape is always playing. 

What on earth is wrong with my heart and my head? It’s not like I don’t want companionship. I ache for it. But I don’t seem to know the first thing about how to look for it.

Scared Single

Hey there, Scared!

No worries about being straight. Love is love — as I am always saying specifically about straight people. Indeed, love, unfortunately, is love. It’s scary and dangerous for absolutely everybody. Yet I am regularly told to pursue it. Sick world we live in, if you ask me.

Perhaps you are right to fear love. Do we not fear the tides? Is it not natural to fear the push and pull of a force greater than we are — one that threatens to crash over us like a rogue wave, knocking our legs out from under us, sweeping us up only to leave us broken on the rocky shore?

I don’t know. That stuff is for poets, and we can’t take all our cues from poets. I know many of them, and their rooms are messier than you can possibly imagine. Still, Scared, I understand why, after feeling brutalized by romance, you would be afraid to “get back out there.” I’ve been “out there.” There are wolves.

On the other hand, “in here” doesn’t feel great either. We get lonely. We get in our own heads about being lonely. We start to think, Why am I so alone? Is there something wrong with me? Wouldn’t my life be better, wouldn’t I be happier, wouldn’t my insecurities go away if I had a boyfriend? I know. I get countless letters like yours. Dating is scary. Men are scary. But so is being alone.

But do you know what I think? I think a lot of people aren’t afraid of dating because they’re scared of other people. I think a lot of us are afraid of dating because we’re afraid of ourselves or, more specifically, that dating will prove the worst voice in our heads correct — the one that says we aren’t attractive or interesting enough to be worthy of a relationship.

The hellish Catch-22 is that we tend to believe the only thing that will shut that voice up is to prove it wrong by finding someone who wants to be with us. The remedy to being too insecure to date is to already be dating someone. I’m giving myself a headache.

You’ve placed yourself squarely in the valley between two impossible things, and from that chasm cometh grief, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. We’ve got to get you out of there, which requires something on either side of you giving in. Maybe there’s wisdom in shifting the way you think of dating.

Dating shouldn’t be a desperate attempt to find someone who will make you feel better about yourself. That will just make you feel worse if a date ends poorly or leads nowhere at all. When I go on dates, I try to push all my self-doubt and insecurities aside and think, I’m here to get to know this person. That’s it. That’s the one goal. It goes both ways too. They’re sitting down to get to know us as well. We’re both trying to see if a second date is something we’d want to do.

I think, too often, we step into a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop with the expectation that we’re about to conduct a series of high-stakes pass-or-fail tests: on our desirability, whether this person could be “the one,” if we are about to embark on a relationship with someone. That’s all a bit much. I think of it more like, Let’s establish a connection, and if it’s a good one, let’s explore it. If we like what we find in that exploration, let’s build on it. If not, there are other adventures to be had.

Yes, dating is a veritable jungle gym for our worst fears to perform acrobatics on. It will absolutely hit you in some sensitive spots. Often, dating isn’t fun. Some guy on Hinge just replied to my “What’s up?” message from last year with “I’m doing well, just a lazy Sunday here” 363 days later. But that doesn’t have to be scary.

What I want you to do is to think — really think — about what you want in a relationship. Forget validation, and forget your fear of being single. What kind of communication do you want? What kind of future are you looking to build? How does a partner complement that vision? Be honest with yourself about whether you’re secure enough to articulate those things to another person. If you aren’t, then your issue isn’t about dating. It’s about your relationship to relationships.

I’m not saying we have to love ourselves before we’re able to love someone else. I don’t always love myself, but I still love and am loved. What I am saying, though, is that we should respect ourselves enough to ask for what we want out of life, be brave enough to set out to get it, and be gentle enough to not be harsh on ourselves when we face inevitable turbulence on the way.

It’s fine, it must be said, Scared, to be single! Just like dating doesn’t have to be a personal attack, neither does not dating. You said you’d like to get back out there, so I addressed that, but whether you’re filling out a Tinder bio or not, it’s about getting a handle on what you want out of life and taking steps to make it happen, and dating can definitely be a part of that.

Multiple websites suggest joining a club, fitness group, or doing volunteer work, so here are those options for posterity. I don’t have room to go too deep into them, because I spent too much time talking about the tide. Apologies.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published on October 12, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase his book, Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I’m Terrified of Dating But Unhappy Being Single’